Friday, 6 March 2015

Elephants Will Eat Anything!

Mark began at our Royal Mail sorting office in East Dulwich in much the same way as the Nazis began at Poland in 1939. He was hard to miss. Wherever you went, there was Mark. Whatever you had done, wherever you had been, Mark had either been there, done it, or had a mate who knew someone.

'He's a good lad, that Mark,' Geoff observed sagely one morning in the canteen. 'He's got character.'

No-one said anything. Mark had just left the room, having spent half an hour telling us about how his dog once regularly caught a train to the nearest town and came back with a newspaper. On a good day the dog would even bring the correct change. We were all still trying to digest this information as we ate our beans on toast in silence.

'Mark's a fucking cock,' I suggested to Snowy as we sat drinking in the pub one afternoon after work.

'Mark's all right,' Snowy told me, clearly understanding that he was arguing against a massive body of evidence to the contrary. 'He's got a good heart.'

This was true, although it wasn't really the issue. Mark had gone from walking postman to the vans fairly quickly, and it was fair to say that he was generally one of the better drivers. If you were amongst the postmen or postwomen for whom he was obliged to provide transport to the first point of delivery, he was nearly always on time. He rarely kept anyone waiting, and he never turned up early to whine about you making him late as you tore around like a blue-arsed fly doing twelve things at once in the rush to be ready. If it was Mark's week to drop off your pouching bags, there was never much cause to worry about finding yourself stood around waiting at the designated box, or for bags to have been left in the wrong boxes.

'He'd do anything to help you out,' Snowy observed.

The problem was Mark's having been assembled during a transporter accident involving David Brent, Alan Partridge, Dennis Waterman's character from Minder, and both Mike Reads - singers of Ugly Duckling and UKIP Calypso respectively. He was always ready with some not-quite-funny quip, those wide blue-eyes and the grin of a seventies disc jockey.

'Yeah,' his voiced boomed through from the other side of the canteen, the room with the television set, 'that's right. You see a shark is actually a mammal.'

I knew this to be wrong and felt an almost sexual drive to set the stupid fucker right, so I poked my head around the corner of the door. The room was more or less empty, just Mark and Jackie - reading the paper and obviously not even remotely interested - and some nature programme on the box. I took a deep breath and had a quick rummage around in my memory.

'Actually sharks are technically cartilaginous fish,' I reported. 'They're quite primitive because they evolved way back at the beginning, and they give birth to live young, which is probably what you're thinking of.' I may have suffixed this with I rather think you will find, and I had a hunch that what I had said was only generally rather than scientifically true, but it wasn't like Mark would be able to tell the difference. Mammal, my arse.

'That's right,' he confirmed, making us those two blokes who know about sharks and stuff, somewhat robbing me of my victory.

Eventually I found a comrade in Jason Aslett. Jason was in a band called Orange Can who, if memory serves, briefly became NME Best New Band or something of the sort. They had a record label and tours arranged, and they had CDs coming out. Nevertheless Jason needed a day job, something by which to pay the rent, and so he signed on with Royal Mail. We became friends fairly quickly, sharing some music industry common ground and pulling similarly perplexed expressions each time Mark opened his mouth and formed words.

'I'm going to tell him that I'm into shagging small boys or something,' Jason said one day. 'Just to see if he's done it as well.'

Sadly he never fulfilled this promise.

Christmas came around and we were in the canteen, taking the early morning tea break. The television was on as usual, a wonky image of a zoo on the broken set, some feature shown as part of Good Morning Britain or whatever it was. In the background an elephant is stood shovelling hay into his mouth with his trunk. There is a keeper in the foreground talking to the camera. Well Christmas is coming up, so - you know - we'll probably be giving him a bit of turkey and sprouts and all that, followed by the inevitable chuckle of a man enjoying his own unambitious joke.

'Yeah!' Mark turns from the screen to face Jason and myself, both sat in the corner with our cups of tea and plates of buttered toast. 'Elephants will eat anything!'

His eyes are wide because the time for joking around is over. We are beyond the looking glass now, people. He is absolutely serious. He has never been more serious in his life. Elephants will eat anything! and he looks back to the TV set as the weather comes on. It's going to be fucking freezing.

My God, I think to myself, he's about to tell us that he used to have an elephant. He's speaking from experience. He knows that elephants really will eat anything because he had one living in his mum's garden in fucking Sydenham.

I turn to Jason. He is sat with toast stalled before his open mouth. He regards me with something that could be either disbelief or horror. He too has had exactly the same thought. He too knows that Mark is about to tell us that he once owned an elephant.

We are trying hard to not laugh out loud.

Mark watches the weather and swears. If he ever owned an elephant, he is now distracted by thoughts of van tires skidding across icy tarmac, engines refusing to start in the cold. He will just have to tell us about his elephant some other time.

In that moment, I feel terrible for regarding Mark as a fucking cock. I recall all the times he's helped me out, dropped off certain difficult packets, or given me a lift back to the sorting office when I've forgotten something. He's a fucking cock, but he's our fucking cock, and we wouldn't change him for anything. He's one of a kind.

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